Cely Letters and Papers

   The letters and papers of the Cely (or Sely) family, a series of documents describing the lives and business activities of a family of LONDON wool merchants in the 1470s and 1480s, are primary sources of information on English society and the English economy at the end of the WARS OF THE ROSES. The letters, accounts, and memoranda in the collection concern the family of Richard Cely (d. 1482), who, with his wife Agnes (d. 1483), raised three sons—Robert (d. 1485), Richard (d. 1493), and George (d. 1489). The senior Richard Cely was a prominent member of the London merchant community in the 1460s, and in 1481 ran unsuccessfully for the office of sheriff of London. The Celys were wool traders, buying wool in England and shipping it to CALAIS for sale to cloth makers in BURGUNDY. Until his death, the elder Richard handled the London end of the operation— the purchase, inspection, sorting, and shipping of wool—while his sons Richard and George (mainly the latter in the 1480s) handled the Calais end of the business—the negotiation of terms for sale of the wool. After their father’s death, Richard and George continued the business as a true partnership,with Richard conducting operations in London. Besides wool, the brothers also occasionally traded in other commodities and purchased ships to engage in the carrying trade, that is, to transport the goods of other merchants. The eldest brother, Robert, seems to have been a rather unstable character who had a poor relationship with his father; he apparently dropped out of the family business and largely disappears from the correspondence after 1479. Now found in the Public Record Office, the Cely papers survived because they were submitted to the Court of Chancery in 1489 as evidence in a court case involving a dispute over debts between Richard Cely and the widow of his brother George. The collection comprises 247 letters and over 200 other documents that cover the period from 1472 to 1488, although the bulk of the correspondence begins in 1474 and no letters have survived for 1475 and the greater part of the years 1483, 1485, and 1486. The letters shed little direct light on the politics of the period, but they are full of concerns about how political and military events might affect trade. This urban merchant perspective distinguishes the Cely collection from the other surviving family archives from the fifteenth century; the PASTON, PLUMPTON, and STONOR letters were all written from the perspective of rural, landholding GENTRY. The Celys and their correspondents had some landed interests, but their main concerns focused on London and on trade, an outlook that makes the Cely documents an important source for the social and economic history of England in the later years of the civil wars.
   Further Reading: Hanham, Alison, ed.,The Cely Letters 1472-1488 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975); Hanham, Alison, The Celys and Their World: An English Merchant Family of the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); selections of the Cely letters are available online through the Richard III Society Web site at http://www.r3.org/bookcase/cely/.

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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